Johannesburg - Toyota Gazoo Racing SA is in the final stages of preparation for its seventh entry at the Dakar Rally, which is set to start in Peru on January 6 2018 and end in Argentina two weeks later.

For the 2018 race the Gazoo team has entered three Hilux bakkies, with the homegrown charge again led by South African cross country stalwart Giniel de Villiers.

The Capetonian, who has contested the gruelling offroad endurance 14 times, will be assisted by German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz who’s sat beside Giniel for the past ten years.

The pairing won the race together in 2009 with Volkswagen, and has podiumed four times with Toyota.

The second Gazoo Hilux will again be crewed by Qatari superstar and two-time Dakar winner Nasser Al Attiyah with French navigator Mathieu Baumel.

The two secured their fourth FIA Cross Country World Cup this year (three times in a Hilux) and won the Dakar in a Mini in 2015.

Dutch driver Bernhard ten Brinke, who will pilot the third Gazoo vehicle, is no stranger to the Dakar having entered six times, and though he’s driven a Hilux in the past this will be his first attempt in a works team.

He’ll pair up with experienced French co-driver Michel Perin.

This year’s Gazoo effort includes newly designed mid-engined Hilux bakkies, which will take advantage of rule changes with bigger air restrictors, lower weight and a 12% increase in suspension travel.

After numerous stage wins in past years, the updates should help the Toyotas mount an even stronger challenge for an overall win in January.

“The FIA has been working hard to try and balance the performance of the turbodiesel-powered cars and the naturally aspirated V8s, such as ours,” says Hall.

“This is an ongoing process, and while neither camp will probably ever be entirely happy with the rules, we are confident that the latest changes give us a better shot at Dakar 2018.”

This year’s winner, Peugeot, will be back with another star-studded lineup including 13-time winner Stephane Peterhansel (six times on a bike and seven in the cars class), rally legends Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz, and five-time bikes winner Cyril Despres.

Mini will field seven cars, any of which could scoop an outright win, but drivers to watch out for here include ex-WRC ace Mikko Hirvonen, former bike winner Nani Roma, and regular front-runner Orlando Terranova.

The Peugeot and Mini teams both run turbodiesel drivetrains, which have secured overall Dakar wins for the past nine years - and all events held in South America since the rally switched to the continent after 2007.

More SA hopefuls

Other South African hopefuls to root for include bikers David Thomas (Husqvarna), Willem du Toit (KTM), Donovan van de Langenberg (KTM) and Gerry van der Byl (KTM).

We also have a privateer entry in the cars class with Hennie de Klerk and Gerhardt Schutte, who will tackle the epic race in a VW Amarok.

Their goal is a top 30 finish.

A total of 337 cars, bikes, quads, side-by-sides and trucks are expected to start the Dakar 2018, the 40th running of the event.

The race will kick off in the Peruvian capital of Lima on Saturday, January 6, head south through the extreme altitudes of Bolivia, and finish in Cordoba, Argentina on January 20.

The route covers more than 9000km, 4500 of which are competitive race stages with varying terrain including deep sand dunes, nasty rocks and some fast-paced beaches along the Pacific coast.